Meditations

Working on Climate Change? I Have a Question

Like many people, I’m terrified of climate change and see it as an important reason for my work.  But when I listen to climate activists, or the politicians they have trained, I’m puzzled by a word that they use.  It’s planet.  We have to “save the planet,” they say.

On the surface, there are two obvious problems with this word choice, so there must be some more subtle reason for using it, one that I need to be enlightened on.

First, the everyday meaning of planet, the one we learned in high school, is something like “a sufficiently large ball of matter orbiting a star.” If that’s what a planet is, then climate change doesn’t threaten the planet. Earth as a ball of rock will be fine.

So when we say “save the planet” we’re using planet in a newer and different way to mean something like biosphere — the sum of all life.  Actually, the meaning seems purposely fuzzy: do we think climate change will destroy all life on earth, or just destroy lots of species, or destroy our civilization, or destroy us?

In my work as an explainer, I try not to coin new words, or create new meanings of words, if there’s any way I can avoid it.  There’s an unavoidable rush of power when you create a word or meaning.  However worthy the reason for your coinage is, it sounds like you’re telling people that they’ve been talking wrong all their lives and only you are talking right. Because the way we talk is semi-conscious and hard to change, people can feel that attack subconsciously, not even articulating why it bothers them.  But like many subconscious responses it can make them defensive, which keeps them from getting to where we need them to be.

Second, many people who don’t care much about the “planet” care very much about civilization, including mainstream conservatives.  Apart from some survivalists and those awaiting an imminent Rapture, conservatives want to conserve their society — to keep it from changing too rapidly.  If we wanted them to hear us, it seems to me, we’d speak of climate change as a threat to civilization.

Speaking that way, we’d also be talking about something that we can be pretty sure about. Nobody can predict the biological consequences of climate change, but we know what happens when the support systems of civilization collapse, because it’s happened many times in history: Starvation, mass migration, wars (and personal violence) over declining resources.  Far more people would be horrified by this prospect than are horrified by threats to polar bears — however much the latter, and biodiversity in general, may matter to you and me.

Climate change has a moral dimension, regarding whether we have the right to destroy other life, but the most acute climate anxiety is about fears for ourselves and our children, not fears for the “planet.”  It’s about looking at your children and wondering if they’ll starve, or kill and die in wars, or live in patriarchal bands where rape is routine — all things humans have done repeatedly under similar pressures.  We have a robust genre of apocalyptic literature increasingly focused on imagining a world in which civilization has collapsed. If you wanted to alarm conservatives into action, it seems to me that you’d talk about this.

So why do I so rarely hear advocates or politicians say that climate change threatens civilization? Why do we keep using the word planet?  Please enlighten me.

The Fishing Pier Problem in Public Transit Equity

Photo: Heditor6, Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever heard people say: “They got that transit improvement in their neighborhood!  We deserve to have one in our neighborhood!”

But does this demand always makes sense?

Imagine a city on a lake or ocean, where neighborhoods near the water tend to be wealthier than those inland.  Suppose the city has a plan to build several fishing piers, but all the proposed piers are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the waterfront.  Isn’t that unfair?

No, I think you’d say, because fishing piers only work if they’re on the water.  If you were concerned with equity, maybe you’d propose a program that helps inland people get to the waterfront fishing piers quickly.  But you wouldn’t support an inland city councilor’s battle to get a fishing pier on dry land in their neighborhood, because it wouldn’t be useful for fishing.

In short, the point isn’t to equitably distribute fishing piers.  It’s to equitably distribute the ability to fish.

In the transit business, when a cool new thing is created somewhere, you always hear the rest of the city say: when do we get that cool thing?  You’ll hear this about everything, from subway lines to light rail to little vans that come to your door.   Enormous amounts of money get spent trying to act on this principle.

The typical pattern goes like this:

  • Cool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense.  (Let’s build a fishing pier on the waterfront!)
  • Other neighborhoods demand the same thing, often claiming it’s unjust or inequitable that they don’t have it.  (Why don’t our inland neighborhoods have fishing piers?)
  • Often the cool new thing is actually built in those other neighborhoods that demand it, but it doesn’t work well there, because the geography is wrong for it.  (A fishing pier is actually built inland, extending across a patch of grass, but nobody uses it.)

The marketing of cool new transit things can make this problem worse.  The more you put out the message that light rail or BRT or microtransit or “Metro Rapid” is cool and different and better than “ordinary” buses, the more mad people will be if their neighborhood just gets ordinary buses.  That leads to political pressure to bring the cool new thing to a place where it just doesn’t work very well, which in turn leads to the cool new thing failing, just as an inland fishing pier will fail.

You’ll get the best transit mobility if we use the tool that works with your geography, even if it’s different from what works in other places.

So perhaps it makes no sense to equitably distribute any cool transit thing.  It makes sense to equitably distribute the ability to go lots of places quickly on transit.

How would our transit debates be different if we did this?

 

 

A New Years Letter, with Unsolicited Advice

This is our little consulting firm’s New Years letter to the world …

Friends, Clients, and Colleagues,

Jarrett's photoA New Years Letter is supposed to wish you all the best while talking about all our own wonderful news. We have some news, and I’ll share it below. But I also want to think with you about how to face a decade that could be the most challenging of our lives.

As we do transit plans in many cities, we’re hearing a lot of hope and a lot of anger, but we’re also hearing a word that I didn’t hear much a decade ago: emergency.

We have the “climate emergency,” an endlessly blaring alarm that unites all natural disasters into one. My Australian friends spent New Years Eve fleeing from 50-foot walls of flame. Young people come to our meetings asking what this thing we’re discussing will do for the climate, by which they mean: “Am I going to have a world to live in?”

But problems of social justice and inequality also look more like emergencies now. I spent much of November in Chile, watching “the most stable country in Latin America” explode in rage and chaos about an economic system that had been considered perfectly normal the week before. Social inequality, however you define it, is a potential emergency every bit as much as climate is.

Emergency is a frightening word. It says: “Do everything differently now, or else,” but people who just try to “do something” often do the wrong thing. Our challenge as a profession is to figure out how all these ringing alarms should affect how we do our jobs, and how we talk about them.

Most of us work in big organizations with complex webs of bureaucratic requirements and processes. We all spend time complying with rules, rather than solving problems or creating opportunities.

Most of those rules have purposes, and I am not calling for open rebellion against them. But to people outside our profession, it can look like we’re performing slow and mysterious rituals while the house is on fire.

So here are some new year resolutions we’re taking on as a firm. Maybe they’re useful to you.

  • I will act as if what I’m doing matters, because it does. Transit is a key tool that can ease many of the crises that are triggering fear and rage, so how you do your job is affecting the world. That’s true whether you drive a bus, design a bus route, audit compliance, or do any other of the thousand things that keep our industry running.
  • If something doesn’t matter, I will stop doing it and stop telling others to do it. Those of us who create procedures have a special responsibility to make sure that everything we tell people to do is actually helping make things better.
  • I will help people understand. Practice explaining what you do and why it matters in plain language. Transit is a widely misunderstood topic. We must be patient and clear in helping everyone see how it works, so that they can make decisions whose consequences they can see.

This, at least, is what we’ll try to do.

Our good news is that we’ve been fortunate to see our work improving people’s lives, and thus making transit more resilient and effective. We led the design process for networks that are now operating in Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Richmond, Anchorage and now, just last week, San Jose and Silicon Valley in California (VTA). Auckland, New Zealand’s spectacular public transit renaissance includes a network redesign that I worked on in 2012, and that finally rolled out last year.

We just finished our work on a giant redesign project in Dublin, our first job in the European Union, and we hope to see it on the street in a year or two. Right now, we’re in the midst of network design projects in Miami, Kansas City, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Chattanooga, and Alexandria, Virginia, among others.

But bus network design isn’t all we do, and 2019 was a year of branching out. We are doing more long range planning, including the Tucson Long Range Transit Plan this year. We’re helping universities and private companies think about transit. We’re providing crucial professional advice on land use plans, too many of which are done without deep thought about transit. We’re advising on a range of policy questions, helping people understand how decisions that are about other things determine whether effective service transit service will be possible.

So that’s our news. The new decade will be full of challenges, but I hope it’s also full of happiness and rewards for you. Let us all keep learning from each other.

Sincerely,

Jarrett Walker

New Year’s Resolution: Ignore Predictions

We’ve all been trained to view the confident prediction as evidence of expertise.  The expert commits to a prediction — “Blazers win by two, “Biden wins New Hampshire,” “We’ll all be riding driverless cars by 2019” — and we’re supposed to be impressed.  “If he’s so confident, he must know what he’s talking about” we are supposed to think.

He doesn’t.  The only statements about the future worth considering are those hedged with uncertainty and margins of error, where certainty is approached gradually through many people studying the facts.  That’s the long, slow, misunderstood process by which we got to the consensus on climate change.  But most practitioners of that craft don’t call this work prediction.  They speak more humbly (and accurately) of projections and scenarios. They tell us that things are moving in a direction, or that some outcomes are more likely than another, or that “if nothing changes” it will look something like this in 2050.

Prediction isn’t humble in this way.  Often it’s just a sales pitch:  “Buy this product and you will be happy.”  “Thanks to our product, public transit will soon be obsolete.”  Ignore these claims utterly.  They are not trying to make you smarter.  As always when you hear any statement about a patented new thing, lean into the wind.  The more you detect self-interest behind the prediction, the more you should doubt it.

When I say prediction-like things in my role as an expert, they are of two kinds.  Either I am predicting the continued existence of physical facts, (“In 2100, an elephant still won’t fit inside a wineglass”1) or I’m offering if-then statements that point to the listener’s power:  “If you do this, it will have this effect”.  I’m careful to stay in those bounds, where I’m certain. When journalists ask me “what will cities be like in 2030?” I decline.

Here’s the thing:  Prediction — by which I mean any non-trivial assertion about the future — is the opposite of moral thinking, because it implies we are passive receivers of the future instead of creators of it.

Predictions tell us that we will happen anyway if accept the future passively, doing nothing to change it.  But all credible, properly hedged projections about that future are dire.  So we will act, and our action will disrupt all the models and assumptions and prejudices that make prediction possible.

To feel powerful, then, you must resolve to reject all confident predictions that you hear.  Honor the projections and scenarios that reflect decades of humble work.  But don’t let anyone tell you they know what the future will be.  Nobody knows, and it would be cause for despair if they did.

 

(A much expanded version of this argument is in my Journal of Public Transportation paper here.)

Notes

1  A more relevant insight about urban planning than you might think, as I explain near the beginning of most of my public speeches — this one, for example.

“To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom”

 

The Journal of Public Transportation has a special issue out consisting of thinkpieces by a range of figures in the business.  I’m honored to be there alongside industry leaders like Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley, Graham Currie of Australia’s Monash University, Kari Watkins of Georgia Tech and Brian Taylor of UCLA, as well as our favorite operations and scheduling consultant, Dan Boyle.

My contribution is called “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom.”  It basically outlines the argument of my next book, so this would be a great time to hear some critiques of it.  Here’s the opening:

What will urban transportation be like in 10-20 years? How will automated vehicles interact with social and cultural trends to define the city of tomorrow? Will the vehicles of the future be owned or shared? How will pricing evolve to motivate behavior? What will happen to public mass transit? What other innovations can we expect that will transform the landscape? This paper, which is merely the outline of a larger argument, suggests three interconnected answers.

  • We can’t possibly know. History has always been unpredictable, punctuated with shocks, but if the pace of change is accelerating, then unpredictability may be increasing too.
  • We can reach many strong conclusions without knowing. A surprising number of facts about transportation, including some fairly counterintuitive insights that would be transformative if widely understood, can be described and justified solidly with little or no empirical ground, because they are matters of geometry and physics or of nearly axiomatic principles of biology.
  • Prediction may not be what matters anyway. If we abandoned hope of predicting the future, we could still describe a compelling outcome of transportation investment, one that motivates many people who will never care about a ridership prediction or economic impact analysis. We could also predict it in the sense that we can predict the continued value of pi. That idea is freedom, as transportation expands or reduces it.

So if that catches your interest, read the whole thing, and share your comments below!

The Wikipedia Defense

A new practice I’m attempting:wikipedia-practice-crop

If you’ve read your favorite news sites in the last 24 hours, and feel an impulse to look at them again, look instead at Wikipedia.

Ignore any “recommendations” foisted on you by some versions of the site.  Instead, enter a few letters at random into the search bar, and scroll until you see something that isn’t obviously tedious to you.  (If you have an old version of the site with a “Random Article” button, just click that until you feel a twinge of curiosity.)

Read.  Learn something that’s at least as interesting as the news, if not more so.

In fact, this is news.

News isn’t all about the present.  All knowledge is news, if you haven’t discovered it before.  All of it sates curiosity, which is the reason you opened a browser or app at all.  And it’s all equally likely to be inspiring, intriguing, and useful.

Weekend Ramble: Empathizing with the Fear of Urbanism

Last Thursday, I joined a panel discussion put on by the Seattle Times about "gridlock".  Mike Lindblom of the times summed it up here, and I previewed it here, but I'm thinking about the guy who came up to me afterward.  

At great length, he told me that Seattle's streets had been planned and designed for cars.  He began listing specific streets, why they were built as they were, with the number of car lanes that their designers had intended.  

He objected to what was happening to his city's streets: replacing 4 tight lanes with 2-3 lanes to add room for bikes, pedestrians, and transit stops.  Not because he hates those things, but because we were betraying the original intent of the design.  These were meant to be car streets, so they should always be car streets.

The conversation sticks with me because he wasn't angry.  (Angry people are boring and unmemorable.)  Instead, he seemed more offended and hurt.  The urbanists remodeling Seattle's streets were betraying a promise that someone had made to him.

I don't agree, but I can feel his feeling.  This kind of empathy, I contend, is a stance worth practicing.

Here's an example, or maybe a confession.   I'm one of those tech users who've been trained by experience to fear so-called upgrades.  Just now, Apple told me to upgrade to "El Capitan," and all about how it would be better.   None of the featured improvements are things I want, so my first reaction is that they're just adding complexity and thus increasing the risk of malfunction and confusion.  Based on my experience, I'm entitled to suspect that (a) they've probably introduced new bugs and (b) they've probably wrecked something that I do value about the current version.  

So I'm kind of person who upgrades at the last possible moment, only when the oldest version is collapsing into engineered rubble.

Computers are one of many spheres where I'm happy with what I have and would prefer it quit changing.  What's more, what I have and like is what I feel the tech companies promised me, in other marketing messages long ago, a promise that I can now see them as  betraying.

Maybe you don't have this feeling about computers, but I bet you have it about something. 

Another word for this feeling of betrayal might be invasion.  Because really, we're talking about home, and the fear of the invasion of home.

In my early fifties, I'm at home with with my hard disk and thumb drives, just as my mother, in her seventies, is at home with notebooks and manila file folders.   When Millennials tell me my stuff should be in the Cloud, it doesn't matter what the argument is.  The feeling is that Stalin plans to knock down my sturdy and ancient hovel, move me to a shoebox in a concrete modernist tower, and put all my stuff in some mysterious storage promising me that the System will take care of it.  

So yes, I'm conservative in this most primal sense of the word:  I get defensive about various kinds of home: physical and intellectual.  And at this primal level, I bet you are too.  You may be sold on the Cloud — and maybe you're right — but I bet you have a ferociously defended sense of home about something.  If you feel aversion about something changing, or anger about something having changed, that's it.  

And this kind of conservatism could be more compatible with advocating necessary change, but only if we who advocate change could hear it, and convey that we hear it.

Now and then I'm reminded that for a lot of people, "home" includes their car.  If that's the case, then of course "traffic" is as offensive as Stalin threatening to knock down your hovel.  And then I see this on a street in Portland today:

IMG_6532

This is the universal fear-image of other people's cars: not your friends and family, and therefore something invading your neighborhood, your home.  (It's a night image because in the day you might recognize the driver, and be less fearful.)  And so the battle between homes, yours and that evil motorist's, is joined.

I think about these things on a rainy weekend to remind myself that conflict about changing the built environment is inevitable, because we are so deeply wired to fear for our homes.  What's more, our sense of home can be so extended into the world (as our cars, neighborhoods, or for environmentalists, our planet) that it will inevitably conflict with the "home" of others..  

But even if we can't agree with someone about an issue, we should practice empathizing with the feeling that something we rely on is under threat.  Because on some issue, I bet you have that feeling too.

Rhetorical Annihilation in the Social Sciences

[This post is periodically updated as helpful comments roll in.]

Have you ever picked up an academic paper and read, right there in the abstract, that you don't exist?  

We're used to reading rhetoric that defines us as the enemy, which is different.  Rhetoric about the "war on cars" or "war on coal" posits an in-group of good people, including the author and presumed reader, and an out-group that is threatening to them.  This is exclusionary language in its obvious form, and it's hard to justify in academia.  

But academics can slide unconsciously into a more subtle kind of exclusionary rhetoric, especially in the social sciences — what I'll call (melodramatically perhaps) the rhetoric of annihilation.  Instead of defining a group of people as evil or threatening, this rhetoric just ignores their existence.   In this rhetoric, there is no talk of war, because only one side is visible.   The author's presumed expertise becomes a kind of campfire.  Gather around the author's assumptions and you will be warm, safe, and included; if you don't, we can't see you out there in the dark anyway, so you basically don't exist.

This is remarkably easy to do even in an academic paper.  Here are two vivid examples, one classically leftist, the other conservative.

From the left, a paper on "transit deserts".  You can go to the link, but I'm not naming the authors here because I have no desire to embarrass them by attracting searches on their names.  Their work has been peer-reviewed, which means that several arbiters of academic quality view it as an acceptable example of professional thinking today.  My point is about how pervasive and accepted this rhetoric is even as academic thought.

The abstract begins:

The term “transit desert” is a new concept that looks at the gap between level of transit service (supply) and needs of a particular population (demand).  These populations are often referred to as “transit dependent,” people that are too young, too old, or too poor or who are physically unable to drive. “Transit deserts” in this case are defined as areas that lack adequate public transit service given areas containing populations that are deemed transit-dependent. 

In just a few words, the authors have denied the existence of three very large groups of people.  These rhetorically annihilated groups are:

  • Anyone who analyzed the spatial relationship between transit service and needy populations before someone  invented the "new concept" of doing this.  This includes all professional transit planners over the age of 30, including past generations going back a century or more.  (Of course, the rhetorical annihilation of elders is such a routine part of being young — kids, we did it too at your age! — that it's hardly worth being offended by.)  
  • Anyone for whom demand does not mean mere need, but rather the meaning that is already routine in business and economics — something like a "buyer's willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service".  The paper's use of the word demand annihilates anyone coming from the perspectives of business or basic economics..  
  • Anyone who uses transit, wants transit to be useful to them, or wants the live in a city where even the rich ride transit, but who does not meet the specified qualifications to be called "transit dependent."  As made clear in the first sentence, these people's desire to use transit, or to build a city around transit, does not count to the authors as demand, because they do not meet the authors' standard for need.

A paper could make arguments against the point of view of these groups, but tbat's not done here.  Rather, the very possibility that such positions might exist is denied.

And of course, conservatives papers do this too.  Let's turn to a conservative-sounding paper, featured in Atlantic Citylab, for which you can also follow the link for the citation.  It's a little more careful but standard forms of annihilation appear soon enough.  The paper opens like this:

This article asks why public transportation’s political support in the United States is so much larger than its ridership.

Upon reading this, I scratched my head trying to imagine what it would be like to find this an interesting problem statement.  I don't mean to rhetorically annihilate the authors; I acknowledge their existence, but it it sounds like they don't talk with transit advocates or riders very much.   Those people would tell you that the answer is too obvious to need studying, as indeed it turns out to be:  

We … show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves.

Well, of course people vote for transit for reasons other than the narrowest kind of self-interest. People vote for transit because (a) it benefits people they care about, if not themselves, (b) it offers some solutions to real problems of urban mobility and (c) it helps foster cities that people want to live in, as demonstrated by the way land values are soaring in such places.  

But why is this a problem?  The authors conclude:

These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.

A collective action problem is a situation in which everyone would benefit if X were done, but nobody can justify doing X as a selfish cost/benefit calculation.  One fable explaining the problem imagines a group of mice who would all benefit if a marauding cat wore a bell, but none of whom finds it rational to the huge risks of climbing the cat's back to put the bell on.

What does it mean to assert that the transit ridership is a problem of this kind?  It implies …

  • … that transit users who do not vote do not exist.  The most explicit rhetorical annihilation in the paper is the assumption that the set of people who vote in the US (rarely more than 40% of the population and often less in local elections) largely contains the set of potential transit riders.  In reality, non-voters are so dominant in the population that their ridership may be a big contributor to transit's actual success, thus helping solve any "collective action problem".  Nor do they consider that many of these non-voters are friends or relatives or employees of voters, who may then understandably, even in a sense selfishly, vote in the interests of those people. 
  • ... that people who don't think they'll use transit are right about that.  In the biz, what people say they want to do, or would do, is called stated preference data, and it's known to be largely useless.  Humans are terrible at guessing what they'd do, or want to do, in a hypothetical future based on a situation, and set of options, that they can't imagine now.
  • ... that there is no gradual path to collective action, because demographic categories all have hard edges within which people are trapped.  This is the big one.  To posit a "collective action problem" the authors must assume that the level of wealth above which people are unlikely to use transit is rigid, even though it in reality it rises as transit grows more useful, and that it divides a population cleanly.   Everyone who is near the boundaries between demographic categories, or who chooses transit for reasons not predictable by their income, is annihilated here.

No argument appears in the paper for any of the assumptions above.  Limited discussion about ridership is based on what people tell the census about their commuting behavior; this casually annihilates all non-commute users of transit, including people who voted for it and love to use it on weekends, but have to drive to work because it's not useful for that purpose.

Finally, the collective action problem assumes that everyone is a bizarre character from classical economics known as homo economicus: someone who rationally computes and acts on self-interest that is defined only in the narrowest sense.  Among the many absurdities that follow from this are that in exactly the same circumstances, everyone would do the same thing, because we do not have diverse values, attractions, or personalities.

But in the real world, one mouse sometimes does put the bell on the cat.  Some of us will take ridiculous risks for the common good.  Some of us choose to be firefighters or police or soldiers or artists or social workers, all high-risk jobs that require courage but that enrich society if they succeed against all the odds.  Most of us don't take those risks, but we're all better off because some of us do.  Likewise, some fortunate people ride transit because they like it.  Some less fortunate ones prefer to spend their scarce income on a motorcycle.  

Everyone who acts in ways not predictable by their assigned demographic category is being annihilated here.  Human diversity, even human quirkiness is good for the collective, however hard it is for the social sciences to describe. 

What do these two papers have in common?  Between them, they annihilate almost everyone, including each other's in-groups.  

You could say that all this annihilation is an occupational hazard of the social sciences — or indeed that it's an inevitable feature of them.  The social sciences are in the business of talking about gigantic groups of people using reductive categories, and all categorization suppresses diversity.

But the hardness of category boundaries is one of the most fundamental and dangerous of human illusions, because it is coded deeply into common language and underlies all forms of prejudice.   So the social sciences are always playing with fire, always at risk of giving aid and comfort to polarizing, exclusionary styles of thought.  

This rhetoric of annihilation can lead to publication and approval, so long as an adequate ecosystem of reviewers and advisors has reasons (ideological or material) for sharing an assumption or at least not challenging it.  But once past that bar, these assumptions become "the literature," bounced around in the echo chamber of "expert" discourse.  Through the turning of generations, some of these assumptions do get overturned, if only as part of the inevitable process of the young annihilating their elders.  But much harm is done in the meantime.

Great academic work also requires thinking about all of the forces that determine the situation being studied, not just the one's academic discipline or in-group values, and honoring  descriptions of the issue from those points of view.   If they intend to influence policy, they make sure they understand the diverse experience of practitioners in the field, not just academics.  This is especially true if a paper intends to influence policy, rather than just participate in a discipline's private conversation. 

But meanwhile: Do you see a new academic paper, thick with footnotes and citations, as an immediate signifier of authority and wisdom?  Be careful.  To be welcomed around the campfire, you may have to consent to annihilation.

How good are we at prediction?

Transportation planning is full of projections — a euphemism meaning predictions.  Generally, when we need a euphemism, it means we may be accommodating a bit of denial about something.

Predicting the future, at a time when so many things seem to be changing in nonlinear ways, is a pretty audacious thing to do.  There are  professions whose job it is to do this, and we pay them a lot to give us predictions that sound like facts.  I have the highest respect for them (all the more because what they do is nearly impossible) but only when they speak in ways that honor the limitations of their tools.

Good transportation planning does this.  at the very least, it talks about future scenarios rather than predictions, often carrying multiple scenarios of how the future could vary.  Scenarios are still predictions, though; they're just hedged predictions, where we place several bets in hope that one will be right. 

I will never forget the first time that I presented a proposed transit plan and was told:  "that's an interesting idea; we'll have to see how it performs."  The speaker didn't mean "let's implement it and see what happens."  He meant, "let's see what our predictive model says."  You know you're inside a silo when people talk about prediction algorithms as though they are the outcome, not just a prediction of the outcome that is only as good as the assumptions on which it's built.

What's more, we seem to be really bad at predicting curves, or even acknowledging them as they happen.

Actual_projected

Something really important happened in the US around 2004, which experts call the "VMT Inflection."  Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US — the total volume of driving — departed from a linear growth path that it had followed for decades, and went flat.  Here's the same curve looking further back.  Around 2003, you could be forgiven for thinking that this steady slope was something we could count on. 

VMT rising

(At this point an ecologist or economist will point out that the VMT inflection shouldn't have been a surprise at all.  This graph looks like what a lot of systems do when their growth runs into a capacity or resource limit.  The VMT inflection is a crowdsourced signal that the single-occupant car is hitting a limit of that kind.)

So reality changed, but the Federal projections didn't.  Even as late as 2008, when the new horizontal path had been going for four years, Federal projections claimed that the growth in driving would immediately return to the previous fast-rising slope.  Again:

Actual_projected

This isn't prediction or projection.  This is denial.  

All predictions rest on the assumption that the future is like the past.  Professional modelers assume their predictive algorithms are accurate if they accurately predict past or current events — a process called calibration.   This means that all such prediction rests on a bedrock idea that human behavior in the future, and the background conditions against which decisions are made, will all be pretty much unchanged, except for the variables that are under study.

In other words, as I like to say to Millennials:  the foundation of orthodox transportation planning is our certainty that when you're the same age as your parents are now, you'll behave exactly the way they do.

We describe historical periods as "dark" or "static" when that assumption is true.  Over the centuries of the European Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, everyone acted like their parents did, so nothing ever seemed to change except accidents of war and the name of the king or pharaoh.  Our transportation modeling assumes that ours is such an age.

Historical progress arises from people making different choices than their parents did, and there seems to be a lot of this happening now.  

What we urgently need, in this business, are predictions that try to quantify how the future is not like the past; for example, by studying Millennial behavior and preferences and exploring what can reasonably be asserted about a world in which Millennials are in their 50s and are in the position to define what is normal, just as their parents and grandparents do today.

We already know that the future is curved.  (With rare exceptions like the growth of VMT from 1970 to 2004, the past has been curvy as well).   Millennials are not like their parents were at the same age.  There will be major unpredictable shocks.  There are many possible valid predictions for such a future.  The one that we can be sure is wrong is the straight line.  

My work on Abundant Access – part of the emerging world of accessibility studies — is precisely about providing a different way to talk about transportation outcomes that people can believe in and care about.  It means carefully distinguishing facts from predictions, and valuing things that people have always cared about — like getting places on time and having the freedom to go many places — from human tastes that change more rapidly — such as preferences and attitudes about transit technologies. It's a Socratic process of gently challenging assumptions.  Ultimately, it's part of the emerging science of resilience thinking, extending that ecological metaphor to human societies.  It posits that while the future can't be predicted there are still ways of acting rightly in the face of the range of likely possibilities.  

Imagine planning without projections.  What would that look like?  How would we begin?

resolution: find more dimensions

Here's a new year's resolution that would help everyone in transit and sustainable urbanism.  

        Now and then, I will step outside of the binarisms that energize me.  

Or perhaps more simply, 

        I will find and explore more dimensions.

This is not vague spiritualist babble.  Here's what I mean.  

A binary conflict (or binarism, or dualism) is simply a pair of opposites that engender strong feels of attraction or repulsion toward one end or the other:    Capitalism vs socialism.  Competitive vs collaborative.  The underclass vs the overlords.  Labor vs. management.  Car-centered thinking vs. sustainable transport options.  Buses vs. trains.

If you have a strong attraction to one of these poles over the other, then whatever the conflict is, it's really "us vs them".  And that engenders excitement.  If the "us vs them" binarism did not fundamentally animate us to action and joy and devotion, nobody would care about sports.  

Here's why I'm thinking about this:

Untitled

This blog normally putters along around 2000 pageviews per day, more when I post more often, lower in the holidays.  Now and then, though,  I take on some piece of journalism that expresses ignorance about the whole project of creating viable alternatives to the private car.  I did that on December 29, making an example of Brian Lee Crowley's anti-transit rant, and of the Globe and Mail for publishing it without fact-checking and without marking it as opinion.

(As I wrote that last sentence, my pulse went up a bit.  That's part of my point.  Bear with me.)

I didn't promote this post more than any other, but Twitter exploded with retweets and and favoriting, driving traffic to be blog.  Troops briefly rallied to my side.  Why?  I had stepped into a known position in an already-mapped binary conflict between people who believe in sustainable transportation options and people who advocate car-centered thinking.1  So it was easy.  It drove traffic.  It was fun watching all that approval pile up.

But remember when George W. Bush said "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists"?  If you think of that spatially, he was saying: "the universe consists of only one dimension, and along that dimension there are two poles with nothing in the middle."  These are the two foundational assertions of the polarizer who invests in binary conflict as a way of life:

  • All meaningful points of view are on the line between A and B.

… and then, as it heats up …

  • There is not even a spectrum of options between A and B.  There are only the extremes.

Polarization is both claustrophobic and deafening.  If you're stuck in the binarism of "sustainable transport vs car-dependence" to the point that you can't hear someone who's thinking "liberty vs control," you're trapped.  It's no better than being stuck in "labor vs management" or "poor vs rich".  Critical thinking, the kind that makes us smarter, is multi-dimensional.  It may try on a binarism, see how it works, even advocate it as practically useful for certain purposes.  But it knows how to consider other binarisms, try them on, and it knows that they're all approximations of what really matters.  

The catch, of course, is that action requires some loss of awareness.  

Watch a cat.  Cats have an awake and scanning state where they are aware of a three dimensional environment.  But then they get interested in something: food, prey.  As the cat's pulse rises, its focus narrows, and at the end, when it's ready to pounce, its world is virtually one-dimensional and polarized:  me and the thing I want.  

Briefly losing awareness of multiple dimensions seems almost inseparable from action.  (I explored this idea more here, when I argued that considers every possible perspective in detail is never an action plan.)

Binary conflict rallies the troops.  Binary conflict raises hell.  But it's the opposite of critical thinking; it's one-dimensional, claustrophobic.  There's nothing wrong with it, but we have to be able to move back and forth between binary conflict and broader, more open thinking.  Ultimately, we have to be able to choose to do it, consciously.  

In the moments between the bouts of us vs. them conflict, step into another dimension.  It's still hard for me too, so it's my resolution for 2014.  Feel free to join me.  

 

 

although the absence of widely accepted terms for either of these positions suggests a certain space inside the binarism, perhaps other dimensions waiting to be released.  You could also argue that my specific suggestions in that post were in the spirit of this one, though I'm not sure that's why it was so popular.